As senators go on summer break, healthcare debate heats up


AMERICA:Recent town hall meetings on healthcare reform have become increasingly rowdy, writes DENIS STAUNTON

SENATORS left Washington yesterday for a month-long summer recess that usually offers an opportunity to test the mood among constituents and persuade voters that they are representing their interests effectively.

After a week of increasingly rowdy demonstrations at town hall meetings hosted by members of the US House of Representatives, who broke up at the end of July, some senators are having second thoughts about facing their constituents at all.

In St Louis, Missouri, on Thursday, police arrested five people following scuffles at a meeting on healthcare hosted by Democratic congressman Russ Carnahan. The same evening, violence broke out at another healthcare town hall in Tampa, Florida, when conservatives started chanting “Tyranny, tyranny, tyranny!” at Congresswoman Kathy Castor.

As a larger mob gathered outside the meeting, the congresswoman was escorted from the building by police.

Conservative activists claim that the demonstrations are spontaneous expressions of outrage against what they view as President Barack Obama’s plan to nationalise the healthcare system. A number of pro-business lobbyists have played a role in the protests, however, listing Democratic town hall meetings on their websites and providing talking points and heckling tips to the demonstrators.

The role of groups such as Freedom Works, chaired by former Republican congressional leader Dick Armey, has led to Democratic charges of “astroturfing” – the creation of a fake grassroots movement.

Before Democratic senators left Washington this week, they received a briefing from senior White House aides David Axelrod and Jim Messina that included video clips of disrupted meetings.

The senators were urged to plan their meetings carefully and to work with unions and other groups that back healthcare reform in an effort to counterbalance the conservative protesters.

“It’s a challenge, no question about it, and you’ve got to get out there and make the case. This is not the time for the faint-hearted,” Connecticut senator Chris Dodd said after the meeting.

Obama’s reform plan would forbid insurance companies from refusing to cover patients with pre-existing conditions or to stop covering policy-holders who become ill. Democrats claim that the plan would reduce healthcare costs in the long term but Congress has yet to agree many key details of the plan.

Among the issues yet to be resolved is whether the government should set up its own insurance plan to compete with private insurers in an effort to drive down prices.

Obama has promised that anyone who is happy with their current health coverage will be able to keep it but private insurers say that a government-run option would be so big and attractive that it could drive many of them out of business.

Business lobbyists latched onto a stray proposal that would publicly fund doctors’ consultations with terminally ill patients who are considering drawing up a “living will” setting out the treatment they want in the final stages of their illness.

“Adolf Hitler issued six million end of life orders – he called his program the final solution. I kind of wonder what we’re going to call ours,” a speaker from Patients First, a product of the conservative group Americans for Prosperity, told activists.

Talk radio host Rush Limbaugh spent much of this week comparing Obama to Hitler, suggesting that a logo for the president’s group Organising for Healthcare looks like a Nazi banner.

“Now what are the similarities between the Democrat party of today and the Nazi party in Germany? Well, the Nazis were against big business. They hated big business and, of course, we all know that they were opposed to Jewish capitalism. They were insanely, irrationally against pollution. They were for two years’ mandatory voluntary service to Germany. They had a whole bunch of make-work projects to keep people, working one of which was the Autobahn,” Limbaugh told his listeners.

“They were against cruelty and vivisection of animals but in the radical sense of devaluing human life, they banned smoking. They were totally against that. They were for abortion and euthanasia of the undesirables as we all know and they were for cradle-to-grave nationalised healthcare.”

Obama’s political organisation, Organising for America, has launched an e-mail campaign to encourage supporters to voice support for healthcare reform and to rebut false claims about the plan. As politicians head into what promises to be a hot, noisy and bad-tempered August break, however, most of the passion seems to be on the other side of the debate.